Urology and the environment: Where´s the overlap?

The latest issue of "European Urology" dealt with climate change and our share of responsibility. The pandemic showed that virtual medical events improve the CO2 balance.

Virtual conferences set the groundwork towards carbon-neutral medical events

The current issue of "European Urology" was dedicated to a very current topic. Namely, climate change and our share of responsibility in it. One point of analysis looked at the CO2 footprint of staging post-pandemic in-person conferences again. The pandemic showed that virtual events improve the CO2 balance. So will it be "Urology for Future" from now on?

At the beginning of 2020 it was still almost inconceivable to hold major congresses as virtual events only. But COVID-19 forced us to a "new normal" and make the best of it.

In retrospect, however, it is now clear that it would have been worthwhile to make a habit of this imposed procedure, because: The climate-damaging CO2 footprint that large face-to-face events used to cause is significantly reduced by virtual events or even hybrid congresses. So, despite the renunciation of much-loved face-to-face events, are we seeing a shift to "greener" and thus much more future-oriented formats?

AUA and EAU gathered reliable data on the issue

In their small study, the researchers wanted to calculate the climate impact of the two largest urological congresses in the USA and Europe in 2019. The CO2 climate footprint per capita was to serve as a comparative figure.

In 2019, a total of around 11,000 urologists took part in the AUA Congress, and just under 9,000 in the EAU. Together, the participants produced up to 16,000 and 11,000 tonnes of CO2 respectively. In particular, delegates from Asia and Europe accounted for the majority of CO2 emissions. 

In other words, both Annual Meetings together produced about as much climate-damaging CO2 as 5,872 cars would emit in an entire year. This is equivalent to about 3 million gallons (about 13 million litres) of petrol burnt.

Transport is not the only source of CO2

If we bear in mind that the study only took into account the amount of CO2 produced by the transport of delegates to and from the venue, the actual climate balance will probably be much worse.

In addition to travel, catering, accommodation, air-conditioning, printed documents, and handouts, the event's program also contributed to a poor climate track record. On the other hand, of course, there is the desire for personal exchange on site and networking in the international research landscape.

The health sector bears a responsibility

Based on these figures, it becomes clear that the health sector as a whole could make a major contribution to climate protection. This includes not only attendance congresses, but also many other points of care in daily practice. Telemedicine comes to mind here, because not every patient always has to come to a physician's office.

Urology will even be affected itself by climate change in the near future. On the one hand, the question actually arises as to whether every trip to a congress is always absolutely necessary. Or is virtual attendance not enough? On the other hand, and this is equally significant, climate change will lead to an increase in urological diseases. Higher average temperatures lead to poorer wound healing, more infections and also a greater burden of kidney and urinary stones. Current studies have been warning of this for years.

A glimpse of the congress landscape of tomorrow?

Virtual congresses offer the opportunity to save time, as there is no need to travel to and from the congress, to save money, as travel costs and overnight stays are saved, and at the same time they still reduce CO2 emissions per capita. That is because virtual also means less catering, less printed congress materials, and less waste.

But: virtual congresses do not allow adequate networking and also no personal contact, such as meeting for a coffee or taking part in one of the numerous accompanying evening programs. Therefore, the face-to-face congress will certainly not be replaced in the near future. However, new ways can be found in the future to help in-person events become more climate-neutral.

For example, congress venues that are easy and quick to reach, cooperation with eco-friendly hotels close to the venue, so that participants can also walk, are conceivable. In addition, catering can offer more vegetarian cuisine and regional products, delegates can turn off lights and air conditioning when they leave the hotel room, and so on. There are still many ways to improve each person's "carbon balance sheet".

But with all the euphoria for digitalisation and virtual congress events, one thing must not be forgotten: Even the virtual feel-good package does not currently exist in a carbon-neutral format, because computer power and servers for broadcasting the events cost energy and thus also cause CO2 in the end. Therefore, "virtual" does not (yet) always mean "climate-friendly" or "CO2-neutral" at the same time. However, we can think the idea further and see the consequences of the corona pandemic in the congress world as a possible first step on the way to true climate neutrality.

Patel S et al., Climate change impact of virtual urology meetings. Eur Urol 2021; 80(1): 121-122